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Friday, 3 September 1920

Mr McWILLIAMS (Franklin) . - I sincerely hope the Committee' will not allow the clause to be struck out. If there is one thing we want to preserve, it is the complete independence of the Auditor-General's Department.

Mr Riley - You would not make it supreme over Parliament?

Mr McWILLIAMS - Parliament must always be supreme. It can repeal the Audit Act if it likes. I want to see the Auditor-General the master of his own staff. Unless we make some such provision as this Bill contains, an officer after being trained foryears for special work in the Audit Department, may be promoted by seniority into some other position in the Service for which be is quite unfitted, while the Auditor-General is compelled to take in and train officers whom he does not want.

Mr Brennan - What about other Departments?

Mr McWILLIAMS - No other Department is nearly so important.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Mr McWILLIAMS - If we agree to the Senate's amendment striking out clause 3, the omission of clauses 4 and 5 will automatically follow. When this Bill was before the House a very interesting discussion took place as to the position of the Auditor-General, and I think I am correct in saying that the Government offered no serious objection to the insertion of this clause. The one object that we had in view was to place the Auditor-General in a position of independence as far as possible, and to give him complete control of his own Department. The succeeding clauses, which have also been struck out by another place, provide that he shall have power to recommend what appointments shall be made to his own staff. The House deliberately decided that it was essential that he should have that power. The Auditor-General has pointed out again and again in his annual reports that the work of his ' Department has been seriously hindered because of the lack of some such provision. One can quite understand the objection that has been raised to this clause by officers of the Department.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Treasurer) - I should like to correct the previous statement made by me. I understand that it was not only the officers of the Auditor-General's Department, but the Clerical Division of the Public Service as a whole, that petitioned the Senate with regard to this matter.

Mr McWILLIAMS - The chief objection came, I understand, from the officers of the Auditor-General's Department.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Treasurer) - I thought so at first, but I find that the objection came from the Clerical Division of the Service.

Mr McWILLIAMS - They were afraid that under this clause we should have a continuance of a system that we have been endeavouring to get rid of, under which an officer is promoted on the basis of seniority apart from any question as to his fitness or otherwise for the position. I ask the Committee to reject the Senate's amendment. Under the present system the Auditor-General might have foisted upon him an unsuitable officer, able or not.

Mr Tudor - He has not complained of incompetent officers being foisted on him; he has complained that his staff is undermanned.

Mr McWILLIAMS - He does not make many complaints; but the promotion of officers on the basis of seniority alone may lead to picked men of the Auditor-General's Department being transferred to other branches of the Service. Under the process of seniority, men who have been trained there for many years may be transferred to a position in another Department for which they are quite unfit. In the same way, there may be sent to the Auditor General's Department officers who, however competent to discharge the duties of other branches of the Public Service, are not skilled in the work of auditing accounts. The absolute independence of the Auditor-General, who has the checking of the whole of the accounts of the Commonwealth, is one of our greatest safeguards. This clause was deliberately inserted' in the Bill in order that he might be made supreme in his own Department. As to the objection raised that under the clause as it stands officers of the AuditorGeneral's Department would not be eligible for transfer to other Departments, and so would be deprived of opportunities for promotion, I would make the fullest provision for such cases. If there is one branch of the Public Service for which we should endeavour to secure the very best brains it is this.

Sir JOSEPH COOK (PARRAMATTA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Treasurer) - This is merely a Bill to correct small anomalies in connexionwith the Auditor-General's Department. It is not a measure in which we should attempt to introduce the big reform that has been suggested.

Mr McWILLIAMS - It is a proper measure in which to provide for any matter relating to the Auditor-General's Department.

Mr Tudor - If there is anything in the statement that the whole of the Clerical Division of the Public Service petitioned the Senate to omit this clause, it is not likely that we shall be able to insert a similar provision in the Public Service Bill.

Mr McWILLIAMS - We know how petitions originate, and the circumstances in which they are often presented. We need a. much stronger reason than that for agreeing to this amendment. Under the Bill, as it left this House, the Auditor-General's Department would be a much stronger niece of machinery than it is to-day. The importance of securing the absolute independence of the Audit Department is far and above some of the objections that have been raised to this clause, and have led to the Senate striking it out. I hope the Committee will reject the amendment.

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